In a short monologue that closes Red Ink, a collection of 10 short pieces by seven Native American playwrights (delivered with decidedly mixed impact in a kaleidoscopic 90 minutes), performer Juanita Blackhawk delivers what might be the emblematic line of the evening. "This," she says (in text written by Diane Glancy), "is the shifting world coyote made."
Life is a trickster, in other words, and the tricks ain't always nice. But clearly the task set forth by this seven-member ensemble is to depict Indian country as a complex intersection between the historical and the personal—with a good deal of stereotypical baggage to unpack along the way. (Much of that baggage is dispensed with in the opening "...But Can You Throw a Tomahawk?" in which a Hollywood producer looks to perpetuate as much savage-warrior hokum as possible. Cochise Anderson's hungry actor's response? "I'll do it.").
Writer Yvette Nolan contributes a couple of the stronger snippets, both featuring Anderson, who lends a mature gravity to a night that often comes across with more energy than cohesion. In the first, he's portaging a canoe through suburbia past a startled homeowner, noting that it's his backyard, too. In the second, Anderson is in the backseat of a police car, subject to the whims of an angry cop (Ernest Briggs), while explaining his status as a City Hall insider by dint of his position as a Native representative in a sea of white faces.
From here the mood shifts at a whiplash pace, and you'll either give yourself over to the experience or feel as though you're witnessing something half-baked. (The show, directed by Sarah Rasmussen, seems to be working out the question for itself. It seeks small truths in a sprawling format and tries for mood over precision, which might well be the smart gambit).
Arigon Starr, also an ensemble performer, pens a riff on American Idol, in which George Keller emotes through a warbling "Cry for My Reservation," leading to a controversy over blood purity. (That theme is also explored earlier in a piece by Drew Hayden Taylor, in which a single woman straddles the paradox that she will only bear children with pure Native men while commenting that pure-bred dogs are nothing but trouble). Starr later also contributes a parody of Native casino culture that only just gets off the ground.
A couple of pieces arrive out of nowhere with unexpected heaviness. Briggs delivers a dark and evocative monologue about a man just released from a mental hospital. Later, Anderson and Blackhawk perform a fragment by Tomson Highway in which an aunt confronts a nephew who has abandoned his roots, which include both support and abuse; Anderson erupts with an emotional moment that hints at a larger story of which we see only disturbing shadows.
As theater, the proceedings veer between transitory revelations and long stretches that verge on the ramshackle. A bit of music gets thrown into the mix to ease our transitions (Glenn Blacksmith and John Oakgrove lead a small ensemble that serenades us before the action begins, throwing in some lovely Native vocalizing with a bit of rewritten Prince). Taken as a whole, viewing pleasure is thoroughly conditional.
Still, the evening's sheer excess of ideas and emotions, and its sense of inclusiveness, guarantee that odd ideas and shards of impressions will rattle around in your head for days afterward. In a short intro to Red Ink, the players look around at the audience and declare this the "weirdest pow-wow" they've ever encountered. One hopes that this rush of short works represents a beginning rather than an end in itself. The coyote's tricks, after all, might not always be the ones we like, but they do keep things interesting.